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Experiment Shows Possibility of Cloning Human Beings

By Robert Cooke

The first clear evidence that human embryos can be split into multiple identical copies -- and someday, perhaps, be grown into adults -- was released recently by a research team in Washington.

The experiments were done on embryos that could not have survived but did live long enough to show that embryo-splitting techniques can work. The eventual goal, researchers say, is to expand the number of embryos that can be implanted in women who produce too few viable eggs.

"This showed the feasibility that somewhere, way down the road -- if we are technically able and it's ethically acceptable to do this -- there is the possibility it (cloning) could work," embryologist Jerry Hall explained Sunday.

Hall's experiment, while falling far short of actually cloning humans, shows that many of the technologies being used to clone farm animals can probably be applied to humans.

The achievement, announced at a recent meeting of fertility experts, will be published in this week's issue of the journal Science, Hall said. The work was done at the George Washington University Medical Center in Washington.

The researchers experimented on 17 embryos that would not have survived because they had been fertilized by excess sperm. The researchers extracted live cells from the embryos and kept 48 cloned embryos growing briefly in culture dishes. The separated clones are theoretically capable of growing into identical adults, if normal.

That such an experiment was attempted is no surprise. Work in farm animals is now so advanced -- with half a dozen adult cows cloned from a single embryo -- that human experiments were sure to follow.

"The idea of cloning humans is a distasteful idea. However, it is justifiable where the woman may be able to provide only one or two embryos, if she has a very limited supply," said Dr. Gary Hodgen, president of the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine at the Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk. "So on a very qualified scale, I think this is ethically acceptable and scientifically important."

In contrast, he said, "it would be unacceptable if it became a method to purposely propagate a family of individuals, all of whom were identical twins, triplets, quadruplets and so on. If this was done because someone thinks it's a funny and attractive thing to do, I would want it recognized" as ethically unsavory.

Dr. Brett Mellinger, head of the center for reproduction at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New York, said that "technology always moves faster than ethics. It brings up really important issues, a lot of Orwellian issues. It's important to bring the issues to national debate."